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Knicks need to return to defensive roots to reestablish identity

The Knicks rank 29th in defensive rating in December.

New York Knicks v Utah Jazz Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

In the last article I wrote earlier this week, I marveled over the Knick’s shooting and scoring to start the month of December.

The next game after that was an ugly 117-113 loss to the Utah Jazz in Utah on Wednesday night. New York reverted to their old selves. They only hit 44 percent of their field goals and shot an awful 22-of-32 (69%) from the foul line. They also shot 9-of-23 (23%) from three, just a bad night shooting from a relatively good three-point shooting team.

Bad offense happens, and they still put up 113 in a losing effort. The bigger problem was that the Jazz scored 117 points.

This continued a bad stretch for the Knick's defense to start the final month of 2023.

In December, they are 29th in defensive rating with a 126.4 rating. Only the Washington Wizards are worse. To open the season, New York was tied for third in defensive rating after four games in October with a 103.5 rating. The Knicks finished sixth in defensive rating for November with a 110.6 rating. Luckily, they have managed to go 2-3 in this stretch due to having a top-five offensive rating.

As we’ve seen the way this team can struggle at times offensively, the top-five offensive rating is likely unsustainable. Combining all months this season, New York is 11th in both offensive and defensive ratings.

December Defense

Breaking it down simply, the Knicks are just allowing too many shots. In December, they are tied for 27th in opponent field goal attempts and tied for 28th in opponent-made field goals. Only three other teams are allowing their opponents to make more threes than the Knicks. Only two are allowing their opponents to hoist more shots from deep.

It’s not like the Knicks are giving up a ton of free throws either, so they can’t complain about an unfair whistle. In their three December losses, they attempted more free throws than all three of their opponents. Unfortunately, in their previous two losses, the team combined to shoot 42-of-59 (71.2%) from the line.

Another element this month is that their opponents are averaging the second-fewest turnovers per game. In November, the Knicks were tied for third in points off turnovers, averaging 19.1 points per game. This month, they are only averaging a lowly 14.2 points, which is bottom-six in the NBA. Tom Thibodeau’s team needs to get back to having active hands and taking advantage of opponents' mistakes.

Last month, the Knicks were the third-best team defending the paint. In December, they are tied for 22nd. It’s a similar story with fast-break points. In November, New York was the sixth-best team limiting those opportunities. Early December returns have seen them fall to 22nd.

Losing Mitchell Robinson will and should hurt the Knicks defensively. He was the anchor in the middle, and it’s hard to replace his energy and defensive productivity. It’ll take a team effort.

Increase in Pace, Decrease in Defense

The last stat I wanted to note from this month was the Knick's pace. New York has generally been a very slow team since Tom Thibodeau became coach before the 2020 season. You can see that model again playing out this season, with the Knicks being 29th in pace. They have played with a 97.41 pace this season, for reference. What is noticeable in December is that they are 17th in pace and playing at a 100.00 pace.

In November, the Knicks attempted nine field goal attempts per game with 18-22 seconds left on the shot clock. December has seen that rocket up to 13.8 field goal attempts per game. They are shooting it well at 59.4 percent, but relying on quick shots from a team that hasn’t shot it at an elite level this season is probably not their best strategy. Quick misses can also lead to quick opportunities for opponents and tire the Knicks out.

It’s all about getting back to basics for this Knicks defense. Limiting shot attempts, points in the paint, and forcing turnovers will have this group back on track and playing winning basketball.

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